Out of Chicago Winter Conference Recap

Attended the Out of Chicago (OOC) Winter Conference at the College of Lake County University Center in Grayslake on 18 Feb and found it to be a productive day of photography.  My personal goals for the conference included expanding my knowledge about flash photography and to improve my portraiture technique.  With some reservations, this goal was achieved.

As usual, Chris Smith and his enthusiastic volunteers ran an efficient, friendly, and fun conference.  I attended the first two OOC Summer Conferences and the Portrait Conference in Spring 2016, so this was no surprise.  Chris always does a great job of bringing in diverse photographic talent to present and teach a wide range of photography skills.  While there are often repeat instructors and courses, there also seems to always be something new to allow one to expand his or her horizons.

At this Winter Conference, Giulio Sciorio was the keynote speaker, and his “Creators Path” presentation was an interesting look at his life’s path towards a career in photography, with honest views into his success and failures – while an inspiring story, it highlighted the perils of the professional photography career, and reaffirmed that I should stick to my day job.  Bookending the conference, macro photography specialist Mike Moats was the featured speaker for the closing session, presenting “Taking Your Photography to the Next Level.”  Mike made a strong argument for finding your niche and specializing on your strengths, and shared very good examples of his outdoor and macro work.  The main takeaway I got from his speech was to eliminate everything but what is required in your images to increase their impact; he repeatedly demonstrated the compositional strength of a strong main subject against a strong background, and nothing else.

The schedule at the conference permitted me to attend three class sessions; with my focus for this conference on flash and portraiture, I chose two classes by Grayslake portrait photographer Steve Neilson, “Off-Camera Flash” and “Advanced Off-Camera Flash”, separated by the course “Maximize Your Modifiers, ” a rudimentary introduction to flash equipment taught by Michigan-based Scott Lawrence.

I previously took the basic off-camera flash course when Steve taught it at the OOC Portrait Conference last spring, so I knew he ran an engaging and participative workshop and decided to repeat it to reaffirm lessons learned, and then to move on with hopefully more insights.  Steve is an energetic and amusing instructor, and really focuses on getting the workshop participants actively involved right away; you are lining up within 5 minutes of the course start to share flash triggers on your own camera and to take pictures of posing models. Steve starts off with some discussion of equipment and then the 30 participants are sequentially shooting the models, while Steve adds lights to the set-up to demonstrate the progression of lighting that can be achieved.  In one hour and a half, this relatively large number of students has the opportunity to get 10-20 shots of the model, starting with one key light, and then progressively adding fill lights, rim lights, background lights, and gels.  The length of the course and large number of students does not permit extensive detailed or individual instruction, but the quick pacing, supportive coaching, and cooperative models gives flash and portrait neophytes a chance to see lighting change impacts and to have results on their own equipment.

Portrait of Jessica Campoverde from Steve Neilson’s basic “Off-Camera Flash” workshop

The “Advanced Off-Camera Flash” course that followed in the afternoon was, frankly, an embellished version of the basic course that followed the same line of instruction.  Again, it was high participation by all workshop attendees, sharing several flash triggers and all shooting the same model with a progression of added lights and modifiers.  Grid modifiers were introduced, and we were working on full length portraits versus just head and shoulder shots, but we really just extended the learning from the earlier course and were just getting more camera time with the model and the flash equipment.  Again, Steve and his model were very enthusiastic and offered lots of lighting tips, as well as posing hints.

Behind-the-scenes of “Advanced Off-Camera Flash” portrait session with Steve Neilson


Full-length portrait of Jessica Campoverde at Steve Neilson’s “Advanced Off-Flash Camera” workshop

Following the workshops, OOC Winter Conference conducted what they called the Winter Shootout, where all of the conference instructors manned stations featuring a wide range of shooting opportunities for all of the conference attendees.  The stations included collections of items (coins, clockworks, feathers, gems, etc.) for macro photography, flowers and other natural items for still life photos, and Steve Neilson and Scott Lawrence with studio lighting setups for portrait photography.  Nick Sinnott ran a station, called Drip Shots, with a setup for timed flash photography of fruit, vegetables, etc., dropping into a aquarium.  While I meandered around all of these, I found myself drawn into the room where Giulio Sciorio was working with model Katherine Grant, employing Fiilex LED continuous lighting and an inexpensive fog machine using water-based fog fluid to create a smoke effect.  While a bit challenging exposure-wise while using low ISOs, it allowed for some interesting images, and model Katherine rocked the session with a lot of attitude.

Model Katherine Grant at Giulio Sciorio’s session of the Winter Shootout


Behind-the-scenes at Giulio Sciorio’s portrait session at Winter Shootout

This brings me to my reservations about the success of the conference for me on a personal level.  This event was a good opportunity to work out my Fuji XT-1 with some good lighting setups, and with models who knew how to work with photographers.  I initially was very pleased that I could take so many pictures and come away with a couple that I really liked and have shared here.  However, on later reflection I was a bit deflated to realize that all I had really done was exploit a portrait session presented for my benefit – somebody else had envisioned the session concept, the venue, the lighting plan, the arrangements for the model, etc., while all I did was show up, point my camera in the right direction and capture some images.  This is not all bad from a learning perspective – in fact, there is some good to be realized in seeing all the elements come together successfully. It does highlight to me, though, that to truly get better at this type of photography I will personally need to learn how to conceive a creative shot, plan the lighting, and learn how to schedule and interact with models on a professional basis.  Then I will be able to completely take ownership of the resulting images.  So bottom line – thanks to all the instructors and models at OOC Winter Conference – I had a good time and can more clearly see how far I have to go

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